In 2015, a number of technology companies who believed they were meritocratic found two things:
- That they’d built their organizations from a homogenous pool of referred candidates and had ignored diversity for too long; and,
- That this lack of diversity hindered their ability to appeal to future candidates.
Hiring is one of the biggest barriers to scaling and growing an early-stage company and unconscious bias is just one obstacle to hiring. We interviewed CEO and cofounder of Paradigm, Joelle Emerson, to discuss her work with companies like Slack, Airbnb and Pinterest. As a way to encourage diversity in teams, Joelle works alongside leaders in these orgs to build comprehensive diversity strategies in HR, recruiting, communications, and policy.
How do you define unconscious bias? What are common biases of tech startups?
Joelle: Unconscious bias refers to the information, attitudes, and stereotypes that inform our subconscious information-processing. We rely on unconscious bias to help us quickly filter and evaluate the massive amount of information our brains are receiving at any given moment. One common bias we see play out is a “similar-to-me bias”: we tend to prefer people who remind us of ourselves. We see this play out in tech companies’ hiring processes, particularly when it comes to assessing for “culture fit.” This assessment often leads people, even if inadvertently, to favor and hire people who are like themselves.
How does bias affect who we hire, promote and place in leadership?
Joelle: Bias can lead us to hold different people to different standards, to seek out information that confirms beliefs we already hold, and to hire people we like instead of people who are best for the job. Biases can also influence performance review and promotion processes, which can make it harder for people from underrepresented backgrounds to advance to leadership positions. This is ultimately self-defeating for companies, as research has shown that diverse groups are smarter, make better decisions and help companies become more innovative.
How can we determine unconscious bias and broaden our thinking to allow for a diverse group of job candidates, leaders and managers?
Joelle: Tracking and analyzing data throughout different processes at your company will help you identify where unconscious bias might come into play. For example, it’s important to consider how people from different backgrounds fare at each stage of your hiring process, as well as in performance reviews, promotion, and compensation. It’s also important to ask employees about their experiences, through methods like surveys and focus groups. To effectively manage bias and build an inclusive culture, companies should listen and respond to the experiences of their employees.
What can you do to increase opportunities for leadership when existing leaders seemingly come from a homogenous group?
Joelle: You can encourage leaders to mentor and sponsor people from underrepresented groups, providing visibility and a pathway to leadership. It’s also important to offer leadership development programs for people from underrepresented groups, and to ensure that the path for advancement is clear. But ultimately, if people don’t see others who look like them in senior leadership, and if your organizational culture isn’t inclusive, employees from underrepresented backgrounds may leave before they ever have the opportunity to advance.
How do you avoid selection bias, over-generalizations and intuition-based decision making in job descriptions and interviews?
Joelle: Designing a structured hiring process helps people make more objective decisions. Structured processes help limit the extent to which people can rely on their own subjective opinions, which are often influenced by bias. Designing a structured interview process includes agreeing on selection criteria before going into an interview, asking the same questions of every candidate, and creating a scoring rubric so that you can determine objectively what “good” or “bad” answers look like ahead of time.
Can you suggest resources and reading for early founders?
Joelle: I like this article on Google’s hiring process, which talks about structured interviewing. My partner Natalie wrote this article on asking effective interview questions, and I’ve written two (here andhere) on strategies for mitigating bias in interviews.
Ways Developer Companies can Deal with Unconscious Bias
In addition to checking out Joelle’s suggested resources, Heavybit is hosting a small unconference-style discussion on unconscious bias on Tuesday, March 29th. To participate in this event, RSVP today with the password inclusion-hb